Tuesday, June 6, 2023
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Fight for transparency in WA government




One of Washington’s valuable lines of defense against government secrecy is foundering. The Sunshine Committee could soon disappear.

When Washington voters passed the Public Records Act in 1972, they created a strong presumption of transparency. “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created,” the act reads.

There are exceptions, though. Lawmakers may exempt specific records whose disclosure could be harmful. For example, Social Security Numbers are exempt from release to protect people from identity theft. Lawmakers have exploited that over the years. In 1972, there were 10 exemptions. Today there are more than 500, many of dubious merit.

The state’s Sunshine Committee is supposed to be the Legislature’s conscience on transparency. It reviews exemptions and recommends changes if they go too far or, less often, don’t go far enough.

State lawmakers, who are hardly fans of transparency these days, typically ignore the Sunshine Committee’s recommendations. Their opinion of the committee is so low that they provide no budget for members’ travel expenses nor to hire part-time research and administrative staff.

Imagine putting in hours of work for no pay only to have that work thrown in the trash by lawmakers over and over again. Sunshine Committee members have grown so demoralized they are contemplating ending the committee.

At a meeting Tuesday, they discussed recommending lawmakers disband the Sunshine Committee. They put off a vote till their next meeting, but the feeling in the chat room was grim. No one volunteered to serve as the next vice chair when the issue came up.

An exodus has already begun. Katherine George, a Seattle attorney and member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, recently resigned out of frustration with lawmakers’ inaction on recommendations. Sunshine Committee Chair Linda Krese, a retired judge, will not seek reappointment when her term expires soon.

“If this is not a product that’s going to be persuasive or useful, apparently to the Legislature, it just seems like a lot of wasted time and effort and cost,” Krese said.

The Sunshine Committee might be at a nadir right now, but disbanding would be a mistake. Washington needs a conscience nagging lawmakers to do the right thing and working to keep the public informed about secrecy overreach. It’s up to voters to make that possible. Only the people can hold lawmakers who choose secrecy accountable.

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